Willkommen Bienvenue Welcome

Welcome, gentle readers.

This is an everyday tale of regular folk, who moved from Sheffield to the deepest Corrèze in France Profonde and thence to the rather more cosmopolitan Lot in search of something… different. We certainly found it.

The Lot is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Reputedly, a famous TV globetrotter was asked where, of all the places in the world he had visited, he might return to. He answered, ‘The Lot’.

Fans of Channel 4’s Grand Designs will know that we built a somewhat quirky straw bale house-with-a-view here in the Lot, not far from the celebrated Dordogne river. You can read all about it in my book,
Bloody Murder On The Dog's Meadow, or watch the re-runs of the programme on More 4, or view it on You Tube.

After a break in the proceedings to write a book or two, this blog now takes the form of an everyday journal. Sometimes things happen, sometimes they don't (but the art school dance goes on forever). I hope it will give you an entertaining insight into what it's like to live in a foreign country; what it's like in the slow lane as an ex-pat Brit in deepest France.

I shall undertake to update this once or twice a week, unless absent on leave. Comments always welcomed, by the way, but I do tend to forget what buttons to click in order to answer them.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Backward-Turning Clocks

Daisy busy enjoying an extra hour
That’s it then. The pretence is over, the resistance worn down. Now that the clocks have gone back, I can accept that winter is really here and get on with the business of preparation for the duration.

Right on cue, a biting wind from the north has sent the temperature into freefall. Yesterday I lit the first (hugely symbolic) fire of the season. Despite the fact that I jettisoned my shorts a few weeks ago in favour of ‘longs’, I’ve hung on determinedly to my summer wardrobe, while expertly manipulating the shutters to preserve the heat of the sun until its next appearance. 

The turning back of the clocks on the last Sunday in October – or whenever it customarily happens – concludes the phenomenon of ‘seasonal slip’, which begins on the longest day, gathers pace around the quinze août and then finishes with a sprint after the September equinox. Mentally, during the extra hour in bed, while appreciating for all I’m worth the fact that I don’t have to get up yet, I stop lamenting the passing of the best part of the year and start conditioning myself to face up to whatever the worst part will bring. 

Last year, the warm weather here went on into November. That was worrying. As a Geordie personality here says, ‘It’s not right, man’. Up until the Sunday of the backward-turning clocks, unseasonably warm weather can still fit into the category of ‘Indian summer’. After that point, it’s just plain disquieting. In other words, it’s right that the temperature has plummeted. Up to a point, I welcome it. That point depends on a nice warm, snug house. 

Shifting hours usually coincide with Toussaint, one of those freewheeling holidays – like Easter – whose dates never seem to be sure. Over time in this peculiar country, I’ve come to embrace Toussaint as an important turning point. We have little use for it in the U.K., so it was a bit of a shock at first to see the florists and supermarkets stocked up with chrysanthemums. While in places like Mexico they’re busy having a grand old time with papier mâché skeletons and the like, the French – we were to discover – have a heaven-sent opportunity to be truly miserable. All those chrysanthemums browning on tombstones throughout the land seem to be a metaphor for the national temper. You can’t eat chrysanthemums. 

From a parent’s perspective, retrospective clocks and Toussaint represent a welcome break from the academic treadmill. The Daughter’s back home after her first two ‘challenging’ months of enforced independence and ceaseless practical assignments. Here to sleep and take stock and top up her nutrition levels and make progress with her various projects. Alas, she’s only been granted a week in which to do all this, rather than the customary recuperative fortnight for schoolchildren. Still, a week is a long time in parenthood. 

Appropriately enough, given old Father Time’s glimpse in the rear-view mirror during the wee small hours when everyone should be sleeping soundly – and quite unconsciously – the first ‘family movie’ we selected was Memento, Christopher Nolan’s extraordinary film about a man with a short-term memory loss ‘condition’, who desperately tries to piece together scribbled notes, body tattoos and Polaroid snaps into a logical thread that leads him to the killers of his wife. It’s hardly really a ‘family’ movie and requires intense concentration to follow events backwards to a shocking revelation about the conclusion to the film right after the initial credits. No wonder we all slept so deeply.

Everything seems to be going backwards at the moment. Economic and social growth has ground to a halt and, after a couple of centuries or more of so-called progress, civilisation seems hell-bent on a return to the Dark Ages. In the U.S.A., President Obama – whose inauguration address I watched in a crowded room in Martel full of the guests of American friends, who were invited to celebrate a brave new beginning – looks set to lose the presidency to a diehard Republican and self-made tax avoider, who has cleverly trumped a message of ‘change’ with a message of ‘real change’. No doubt this will involve sacrificing more of the vanishing environment to big business and a further dilution of the rights of the poor and oppressed who were once invited to the New World in the name of Liberty.  

Here in France, the electorate is already beginning to turn against our new president because the problems he promised to address have, strangely, failed to go away and, more strangely still, got worse. Next time around, there will only be one more untried option left to voters who kicked out Sarkozy only to grow so rapidly disenchanted with Hollande. The far right party has already found its calendar girl in the glamorous granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. In ‘Ain’t That A Bitch’, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson growls, ‘Somebody do something! The present situation is ab-stract’. Presumably, at 22, she knows just what to do to rectify an ab-stract situation.  

If and when that awful day arrives, expect to find me on the morning of the last Sunday in October hiding under my duvet for considerably longer than an extra hour. 

Happy wintering, one and all!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Journey To The Centre Of Europe

To use the title of one of those melancholic torch songs in which Chet Baker specialised, ‘Whatever Possessed Me’?

Why should an otherwise sensible married couple choose to drive from south-west France to Budapest and back? Yes, it was the last chance to see an old friend before he moved back to Sheffield at the end of his tenure with the United Nations, but that hardly excuses such a rash and deluded undertaking. Public transport might have been expensive, but once you’ve paid for diesel and the incessant motorway tolls, it looks a much more competitive and certainly safer option. 

I blame myself. The notion was mine, but as usual I failed to think through the details. Whether it’s Britain or France, travelling across a map always seems to be more difficult than travelling up or down it. The distance in this case was unspeakable. Even now, I refuse to clock up the kilometres. Add to the equation the motorways of Italy and Austria. We’re spoilt in France. Traffic is generally light and people, although I never thought I’d live to admit it, drive with a certain discipline and civility. The motorway that crosses the north Italian plain is like a combination M1/M6 hell-hole conceived by a Minister of Transport given to suck the blood of his victims. It’s wall-to-wall lorries, which render the inside lane – normally my refuge of choice – impenetrable.  

It was the lorries that prompted us to take a northern spur to Austria by way of the Brenner Pass. The scenery was stunning, but no sooner had we crossed the frontier than the rain that washed out Europe descended like a curtain. The Austrians are a comparatively wealthy lot and there seems to be a surfeit of black Audis and BMWs, whose drivers want to kill themselves and as many others as they can take with them. During my white-knuckle stint, gripping the steering wheel as I tried to ignore the tiny demons whispering in my ear that we’d never make it to Vienna alive, cars flashed past at speeds that suggested they could see beyond the spray they kicked up.

Somewhere around Salzburg we ran into a traffic jam. After crawling nowhere for half an hour or so, we discovered that someone had smashed through a safety barrier and disappeared into the ravine below. The traffic police stood around figuratively scratching their heads. Electronic signs thereafter urged people to cut their speed, but no one seemed willing. Miraculously, the rain stopped and my co-pilot took us to Vienna, where – despite the absence of signs and guided entirely by E.S.P. – she steered us straight to our hotel opposite the West Banhof station. With five minutes to go before the garage was due to lock its doors, I tried out my ‘O’ level German on the woman behind the desk. Wir haben ein zimmer gereserviert… She smiled sympathetically and replied in perfect English to the effect that she would phone the garage and ask them to stay open for us. The line between triumph and disaster was fine enough to suggest that a guardian angel had helped us negotiate our road of trials. 

Only a little more than 100 years ago, Vienna, I discovered, was the 5th largest city in the world. That its population at the time was around 2 million shows how far we’ve come in terms of global over-population. My father was disappointed to discover that the Danube only skirts rather than runs through the city. I know what he meant. There is something ultimately unsatisfactory about the place. If the architecture that marked the 19th century pomp of the Austro-Hungarian Empire appears initially rather grand, it soon turns sterile and pretentious. The boulevards are wide and graceful, but they weren’t designed for tourists like us on foot. Although armed with copious leaflets and maps, we both found it one of the most confusing cities to find your way around – perhaps because of the lack of a river as a reference point.   

Our trip coincided with a major exhibition in the grandiose Belvedere Palace to mark 150 years since the birth of Gustav Klimt. Seeing his work in the flesh – and that of Egon Schiele, his younger and more radical contemporary –prompted the kind of emotions that pilgrims at Mecca or Jerusalem must experience. You realise that even the best reproductions in a book can never be more than a mere facsimile. Seeing them, too, in the context of all the pompous imperial showpieces also helped to explain what the Secessionist Movement at the turn of the 19th century was all about. The glorious Art Nouveau apartment buildings and other architectural gems of the era seem so much more modern and challenging when set beside the vestiges of the self-satisfied and stultifying old order.

There wasn’t time to visit the eccentric creations of the architect and painter, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and I would have liked to travel on the big wheel in which Orson Welles delivered his famous cuckoo-clock speech to Joseph Cotton in The Third Man, but I couldn’t leave Vienna without sampling some apple strudel. We treated ourselves to afternoon tea in the elegant Central Café, where an ageing jazz pianist ran through his repertoire as if practising scales. Verily I can now say unto thee that I understand the Germanic obsession with strudel.  

After a Duel-like incident with a menacing lorry on the M1 from Vienna to Budapest and our first mystifying encounter with the Hungarian language and currency when trying to buy the obligatory vignette that entitles you to drive on Magyar motorways, we arrived in Budapest with just enough daylight to appreciate why the city is spoken of in reverential tones. Our friend Bryan found himself an apartment on the 5th floor of a block that looks as if it was designed by a disciple of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, with one of those wonderful cage-lifts that you tend to see these days only in French films of the 1950s. Some might die for the view we had from our bedroom window: over the wide Danube to the stately floodlit buildings of Buda on the other side. 

The block is in what was once the rich Jewish sector of Pest. Not any more. I had forgotten that more Hungarian Jews died at Auschwitz than any others and Bryan began our bicycle tour of the city the following morning down by the Danube to see a chilling monument to an infamous massacre. The sculpted boots and shoes on the quayside represent the victims of the Hungarian Nazis who were bundled together with barbed wire and chucked into the river.

It’s all the historical, political and social contradictions that make the city such an alluring and fascinating place. Wealth and fairly severe poverty sit side by side. Many of the elegant public buildings, which sprung up after the Compromise of 1867 gave Hungary more of a dual role in the management of the Hapsburg Empire, lie empty today. The monumental Soviet statues – including Stalin’s boots, which steadfastly remained once the body had been toppled – have been shifted to Memento Park on the outskirts of Buda, but the hated Soviet war memorial still sits in the centre of Liberation Square on a plot of Russian-owned land forever fenced off from vandals by railings. Not far from this, there is a bronze statue to the man who supposedly liberated the Hungarians from the yoke of communism. No, not Mikhail Gorbachev, but er… Ronald Reagan. And not too far from the life-size replica of Mr. Ray-Gun you can see the bullet holes, now plugged with black metal rivets, that commemorate the 1956 October uprising.  

There is a thriving counter-culture despite the current right-wing regime and the Bohemian young have converted some of the more dilapidated apartment buildings into ‘ruin bars’. They look like glorified squats and the number of bicycles parked outside tends to denote the coolest establishments. On the Saturday night, we went to one such bar to watch a Roma band play a kind of thrash-gypsy version of their traditional music. We travelled back home on a trolley bus, one facet of the plentiful and regular public transport in Budapest. A favourite occupation is fare-avoidance: a throwback to a practical form of civil disobedience during the Soviet dictatorship.

Sunday morning we spent in the lap of luxury at the famous Széchenyi spa baths. It would have been nice to capture such an extraordinary place on film, but the last thing you want to take with you to public baths is a digital camera. As I sat with Bryan outside in the crowded circular pool, not far from a group of elderly men playing chess on a plastic board up to their tattooed biceps in hot spring water, while my aquatic wife did her lengths in an adjacent pool for serious swimmers, my friend told me how in winter you can come here and not see beyond your nose for the steam rising off the surface of the water. We decamped to the labyrinthine network of plunge pools within the palatial buildings and sampled a range of temperatures and degrees of sulphur. In the murkiest and most eggy one of all, we watched a corpulent gentleman opposite us fall gradually asleep.

Because of the impending journey home, we sacrificed another night in Budapest to the further joys of road travel. This time we went via Slovenia, where they also demand a vignette for the car. As we crossed into Italy not too far from Venice, we ran into an electrical storm of Wagnerian proportions. Faced with the prospect of Monday-morning lorries, I preferred to drive on while the roads were empty and, much to my poor wife’s chagrin and for want of a convenient staging post, we ended up driving through the night.  

By the time we got home to be greeted by the cats, after another gentle jog down the unreal A89 that traverses the Massif Central, we had agreed that we would never go on holiday again. Not outside France, anyway. In time, we may recant our decision. Vienna and Budapest have been ticked off the list, but there’s still always Prague. But if we ever go there, it won’t be by road – even if that means having to fly with Mr. O’Leary’s unloved airline.   

Monday, October 8, 2012

Damage Limitation

We had an interesting discussion in the car last weekend, my wife and I. It almost became a ‘heated debate’, but not quite. We are accommodating adults mainly, who fail to agree sometimes on certain fundamentals.

We were driving up to see our friends, Howard and Lynda, on their organic farm not far from the Gouffre de Padirac, that great hole in the limestone causse that attracts tourists by the apparent millions. It was a beautiful autumnal Sunday morning and Debs was on a mission of mercy. 

Howard had been attempting to hold a sheep against his body so that Lynda could clean all four feet to prevent infection and disease. Although they have the most placid flock of sheep in France, the animal writhed and wriggled and twisted until Howard toppled backwards in such an awkward way that the sheep fell against his knee. Sheep aren’t cows, but they weigh more than a fully-grown adult apparently. It’s an occupational hazard of farming that we mortals would never imagine. 

Lynda at work in her studio
So my angel of mercy was going up to see them ostensibly to massage Howard’s swollen knee and keep him roadworthy. Unbeknownst to me, however, she wanted to pick up a picture reserved for my birthday at Lynda’s last exhibition in Carennac. Howard’s a writer and Lynda’s an artist by trade, who paints beautiful icons on found wood using traditional methods. Like many creative artists over here – or everywhere for that matter – neither of them can give up the day job. Lynda sells a few paintings whenever she exhibits her stuff, but supplements her income by making beautiful hand-painted cards to sell via a health food shop in nearby Gramat.

I don’t know how we got onto the subject in the car, but Debs and I started discussing good and evil. My wife is a member of the half-full glass club: optimistic and a firm believer in the power of love. My glass tends to be half-empty. I’m usually pessimistic about the future and only too aware of the forces of evil.  

We are Mrs. Chalk and Mr. Cheese, who have found a good balance to temper the other’s more extreme tendencies. On probing a little further, we found some common ground. Yes, we agreed, there probably are more good people on earth than there are bad people. I contend, though, that all the good done by the good people is an exercise in damage limitation. In other words, all that accumulated goodness just about keeps the evil under control. Without it, the malignancy would spread like a fungus and contaminate the world. 
For me, this seems to be one of the most elementary lessons of history. The evil that the odd tyrant and sociopath contrive to unleash is so tout puissant that goodness seems puny and ineffectual in its face. How many column inches in the history books, for example, are devoted to Hitler’s Final Solution or Stalin’s Gulags as opposed to, say, Jonah Salk’s efforts to cure polio or… or… or? Help me out someone. 

Just recently, Pandora’s box seems to have been opened again. It seems that we are hurtling towards hell in a handcart with no brakes. Increasingly, I’m spending more and more time signing on-line petitions: urging the Russian government, for example, to stamp down on a new sick craze in Moscow to poison dogs and post films of their suffering on the internet. It’s reassuring to see all the thousands of other people signing, but you know that someone like dear President Putin is unlikely to give a monkey’s. Even if all these petitions achieve their ends, this propensity for evil doing will never diminish.

Lynda tends probably to ally herself to my wife’s philosophy, while Howard’s is probably nearer mine. No sooner had we got there than they presented us both with the picture that Debs had reserved for me. It turned out that I had reserved the exact same picture – a watercolour of a bee in flight – for her next birthday. Faced with such marital synchronicity, they decided to offer it to both of us as a joint present from both of them.

Howard is reading a book on Young Stalin. Probably to explore the mind of the Adult Stalin, whose story he has also devoured recently. We discussed our in-car debate and Howard contributed the metaphor of building a house. A team of people, united in a common good, can put up a house in a matter of months. But it only takes one bloody-minded bar steward with a sledgehammer to smash it all down in a few hours.  

After Debs had anointed the swollen knee with her essential oils, we took their dogs, Beano and Dandy, a pair of Jack Russell brothers, out for a walk around the neighbourhood. Our hound tagged along peacefully while the brothers, who have to be kept straining on a lead to stop them tearing off over the hills and far away, panted around their familiar circuit. We said our goodbyes and drove home to hang our new picture under Lynda’s painting of St. Michael, the sad-eyed patron saint of everlasting lingerie.

Howard, Lynda and egregiously lifelike scarecrow
I went back in the week to help them dig up some of their potatoes and took Howard The Stalin Epigram, a novel written by an American friend of ours, Robert Littell, who lives in a glorious house near Martel. Just to round off the picture of a megalomaniac, who would probably tie Adolf Hitler in a TV show where viewers had to vote (by telephone for not more than a pound per minute) for the most evil man in history.

It was another beautiful day. Digging potatoes is hard work, but a rewarding change from sitting in front of a computer all day long. Turning soil over to find clusters of fresh white spuds is akin to digging up buried treasure. And it’s rich soil, to be sure. They must have worked very, very hard to create such regular parallel mounds of friable earth. A lot of digging, weeding, natural compost and rigorous crop rotation. Afterwards, I helped wheel their wheelbarrow up to the barn to spread out the potatoes to dry on recycled bed bases.

I only managed half a day of such hard labour, before driving back for a soak in our bath to ward off problems with my lower back. It occurred to me that what Howard and Lynda do – working all hours to tend the soil in the age-old way – is also like an exercise in damage limitation. Are they and others like them fighting a losing battle in the face of the relentless march of factory farms, monoculture, agro-chemicals and scorched earth? 

I sincerely hope not.